How Many Reviews Does it Take to Change a System?

Consultation closed yesterday on the Review of Australia’s Research Training System by the Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA). For those of you playing at home, yes, I *did* post recently about another public consultation process that also closed yesterday, and yes, I *did* suggest it had great potential to lift the innovation industries out of a long running problem – for a semi-controlled riff on the consultation blues, you can have a look at my post today on LinkedIn.

Back to the ACOLA review, and before I go any further I should be clear: any criticisms (and there will be some, trust me) in this post are in no way directed at ACOLA or the well-respected and very busy people on the Expert Working Group tasked with completing it. This review was not their idea, and I have no doubt they will do their best to make it a constructive investment of public monies. I had the pleasure of meeting Working Group Chair John McGagh several years ago when he was head of Global Innovation for Rio Tinto, and that’s just the kind of man he is.

That said, it’s not exactly news that workforce capability and development outside technical aptitude has been a recurring challenge for the innovation industries:

  • in 2012, the Office of the Chief Scientist published a paper highlighting a survey of employers of research degree graduates. That survey found graduates were relatively lacking in communication, teamwork and planning skills as well as knowledge of financial management, commercialization and intellectual property.
  • that survey was published by the Allen Consulting Group in 2010, and also found one third of employer respondents could only say their newly employed PhDs and postdocs had the necessary skills to be productive in their organisations sometimes or less frequently.
  • respondents to the 2010 survey questioned the ability of graduates to apply their research skills outside an academic environment, be that in a policy, practice or commercial environment.
  • a survey in late 2011 by the Australian Association of Graduate Employers confirmed that soft skills rate far more highly with employers than academic grades.
  • Feedback from Science Pathways 2012, a forum convened by the Early and Mid Career Researchers of the Australian Academy of Techological Sciences and Engineering (EMCR) identified four key areas for skill development to achieve best practice for postdoctoral success, encompassing career development and career progression.
  • EMCR’s response to the National Career Development Strategy Green Paper in 2012 argued that the training required today is broad, not just discipline-focused, with an urgent need to prepare students for career changes over time, and should include transferable professional skills such as business, communication, management and finance.

And it’s not just my excellent research and policy skills that found these and a host of other findings and recommendations: most if not all have been cited by the various departments with an interest in innovation in their own publications. You’ll also note these documents are not exactly ancient.

I’m not going to repeat the rants I’ve made this year and in 2014 pointing out the limited response of the higher education sector, employees of well over half of Australia’s research graduates, to this information. I will, however, point out that, to my knowledge every university in Australia has a business faculty, many very well regarded internationally, and most an education faculty. Yet despite years of reports calling for a broadening of skills sets in Australia’s researchers and improvements in their rates of collaboration and interaction with industry, we have yet to see any significant or systemic change.

The problem can’t be access – while the figure may vary depending on the source and its methodology with respect to publicly funded research institutes, no-one disputes a significant proportion of Australia’s researchers are in the higher education sector. Nor can it be incentives – Australia’s innovation policy over the last decade has, if nothing else, been consistent in the imbalance between providing direct and indirect incentives depending on whether one is the providing the researchers or receiving them.

Which suggests the answer is one of will or of ability. Either way, perhaps it is time for a paradigm shift. In the words of Nobel Prize winner and former Economics Professor Muhammad Yunus, “Business is a very beautiful mechanism to solve problems, but we never use it for that purpose… it satisfies our selfish interest but not our collective interest.”

Perhaps, rather than incentivising the providers that have not yet solved the problem, the time has come to introduce some alternatives, ways that a early or mid-career researcher who wants to be proactive about a gap in their working skill set can choose to pursue. To reward or incentivize the researchers to take primary responsibility for their professional development, and to encourage the market for innovative programs such as Melbourne’s Molecules to Medicine which originated at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute working with Tom Williams of Biomentoring, and the national internship initiative operated by the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute (AMSI). And yes, through providers like Your Commercial Foundations.

In the past twelve months, YCF has refined its offering of Conversational Commerce modules in response to feedback from test audiences. The full program now consists of four skills modules – Basics of Persuasion, Money Matters, Writing with Influence and Profile with a Purpose – and five context modules.

Context modules integrate the knowledge, skills and insights of the skills modules and applies them to experiential contexts in which they are most likely to deploy them. These five context modules – Funding Fundamentals, Conversational Industry Engagement, Conversational Collaboration, Conversational Intellectual Property and Conversational Commercialisation and Uptake – are at the core of YCF’s 2015-2016 calendar for individual participants – corporate clients are able to select from the full nine modules to best meet their employee’s development needs. A final context unit, Conversational Policy, will be introduced in 2016-2017.

In recognition of the research sector’s preference for skill development via formally recognised qualifications, YCF is also preparing for accreditation as a Registered Training Organisation, ideally in early 2016. With no incentives and its own funds. (Thanks Dad!!)

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Science, Technology and Industry Outlook 2014 observed that the advantage of advanced economies in higher education is shrinking. It is becoming vital for individual researchers to distinguish themselves to compete or even participate in the global marketplace for ideas. We can embrace that challenge, and face it with them, or we can continue to invest our money in incentives for those with no imperative for change and in reports that bemoan industry’s culture for not shifting or making the change for them.

And once again I find myself echoing Australia’s current Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb AO:

“We’ve been talking about this for a while but as I get older, I’m getting less patient with inaction”


The Allen Consulting Group report is available online at their website or via the website of the Department of Industry.

The OECD’s 34 members represent all of the developed and the leading emerging economies. It’s publications are available on-line through their iLibrary.

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